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Manufacturing Community

The importance of culture in the adoption of robotics and manufacturing

Author: Jack Semple

Published: 04 Mar 2022

In this article, we hear from Jack Semple, who runs the Engineering and Machinery Alliance (EAMA) and is a member of the ICAEW Manufacturing Community Advisory Group.

Culture is a key influencer in any company, sector and economy. It can propel progress forward or it can hold it back. It can define what progress is considered to be.

Cultural change seems to be everywhere at present, from the government’s approach to carbon emissions in response to climate change to shifting views about working at home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same way, business leaders should consider reviewing where their firms are, culturally, in relation to the adoption of robotics and automation. The UK is not well placed now – being 24th in the world for use of robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees [1], and well behind in automation, in which we have only about 6% of the European market and are well behind leading industrial economies such as Germany, France and Italy.

There are many reasons for these low rankings, but a lot may well come down to culture. There is a culture of financial and accounting caution, where the case for investment is not clearly understood, and of engineering conservatism. Pride in, and comfort with, traditional skills and processes and in keeping machines working indefinitely may be dominant in many firms at the expense of looking forward to new ways of working and technical innovation. Looking back rather than looking forward.

At its most extreme, British manufacturing is caricatured as being based on a passion for fettling old machines, fuelled by nostalgia for the triumphs of previous eras. The reality is entirely different, and our best companies show lean, automated and effective manufacturing processes, resulting in components and end products that are among the best in the world. These are the companies to watch.

But the UK’s rankings for robotics and for automation don’t lie, and the cultural needle needs to shift. However, that does not mean ignoring the achievements of the past. History can show the importance of a culture of commitment to quality, good processes and innovation, based on strong understanding of engineering which can adapt to evolving technologies and customer and regulatory demands.

We know that technology is changing rapidly in most sectors, above all, in terms of digital technology. The firms that understand and embrace that will be the ones that prosper. They will have the basis for demonstrating to customers, suppliers, and investors that they have a culture that is attractive and geared for success. They will also be able to attract the best talent, which can drive further improvement.

All these factors are going to be important as the UK and economies around the world come out of the pandemic. Change looks set to accelerate in response to shifting market demands, investment in sustainable technologies and the reshaping of supply chains. The companies that are able to react quickly to changing demands, can ramp up volumes reliably and meet ever more demanding quality standards will be those that have started the journey on robotics and automation.

The total UK market for robotics & autonomous systems (RAS) is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of more than 40% per annum between 2020 and 2030, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; by 2030, BEIS predicts it will have reached a market size of almost £3.5 billion [2].

This does not look to be a time to be standing still as a business. At the Engineering and Machinery Alliance (EAMA), we are hearing of a growing number of firms starting to invest in robots and automation, often having put that investment off in the past. It is the revival of a bolder, more adventurous business culture which is in the best traditions of British engineering, and which is much needed.

This article is taken from a wider report from the Manufacturing Technology Centre on automation being the key to improving UK productivity.

*The views expressed are the author's and not ICAEW's.

1 IFR World Robotics 2020 Robot density rises globally - International Federation of Robotics (ifr.org)

2 UK Innovation Strategy, Leading the future by creating it, BEIS, Pg. 93, 2021 UK innovation strategy (publishing.service.gov.uk)